Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Buy A Book

Well, I've just received some copies of my new book, 'In Too Deep', and I must say that the thrill of actually holding the thing in my hands has been more than worth the struggle. Mercier Press have done a beautiful job on the design and it really feels like a high-quality piece of work.
Anyone who might be eager (or curious...) for a sneak preview of the cover can check it out at:
'In Too Deep' will be launched on the unsuspecting public over the next couple of weeks...
Lately, everyone has been feeling some of the financial squeeze brought on by the grip of that good old buzz-word, 'recession'. Last week, while reading Vanessa Gebbie's blog (Vanessa is a fine writer, by the way, with an excellent collection of stories, Words From A Glass Bubble, that really cannot be recommended enough) I stumbled across a statement posted by Salt, one of Britain's lesser-known publishing houses, who specialise in short story collections. With little or nothing in the way of arts council funding, they rely desperately on book sales to keep afloat. The past year, though, has seen a dramatic downturn in revenue, and now they are really struggling. As a (more or less) last-gasp effort, they started the 'Just One Book Campaign' (follow this link: to read all the gory details).
Thankfully, their call to arms seems to be showing dividends, but it should act as a warning to everyone. The publishing industry is fickle, and it is the independents that keep the big houses honest. They are in constant need of support (my own publishers, Mercier Press, just as much as Salt), and the best way that readers can help is to take a look at their catalogues, pick out something they like, and buy a book.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, Bob

My good friend Bob Dylan turns 68 years old today, so I will be celebrating by a chronological trawl through his great and vast pantheon of masterpieces. Close to fifty albums separate the eponymously titled first album (released in 1962) from his latest work (the recently released, Together Through Life, which grows more impressive with every listen), which will probably account for an entire week of pretty intensive listening.
As I write this, I am listening to 'When The Ship Comes In', from the 1964 album, The Times They Are a-Changin'. The song is just one of the many often overlooked gems in his incredible catalogue of work, one with a simple-sounding arrangement and melody that belies a rhapsody of startling imagery and immense drama. This is Bob in all his glory. Instead of the standard 1964 fare of cars and kisses, we are instead treated (or exposed) to a rainbow stew that melds Revelations with Kerouac, with Giotto, with Robert Johnson. And yet, even beyond the convoluted web-weaving of the words, what staggers me is the sheer animalistic power of Bob's voice. He is twenty-two years old on this record, but he manages to sound ancient, or eternal, all-knowing. Above sparse accompaniment, just a strummed acoustic guitar and a few puncturing harmonica wails, that voice rides waves and holds down the air. It delivers the words as Gospel, at once angry and hopeful. Magnificent, actually.
Whether he knows it or not (and whether he cares or not), Bob Dylan means an enormous amount to the lives of multitudes of people. In this life, worthwhile connections are difficult to make, but his art has a unique way of reaching out and working away on the senses until some important fuse is blown, and there is room, finally, for understanding. He is 68 years old now, and thankfully still as sharp as a bag of pins, still as good and as great as ever. There are not many like him. No, strike that. There is no one like him. Happy birthday, Bob, and here's wishing for many, many more.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Big Fish

I get sidetracked easily. Three weeks or so ago, I made a vow that I was going to focus all of my energies on researching my novel. I have the idea, but I need details. A lot of details. So I set to it, braced mself against distraction and went digging up the dirt, picking out only the tastiest of the bones. Then, this week, I had an idea for a story.
Anyone who writes short stories knows that they come along like fish up a river. There are the occasional sprats and minnows that look tasty enough when they catch the sun, but when you do hook them, after a bit of a struggle, you get to realising that they really weren't worth the effort. The trick - and I have only learned this from years of diligent, frustrated practice - is to only go after the ones you really want. They are not always easy to identify, of course, but you do the best you can. And the thing about storie ideas, and fish, is that you either go for them when they are passing or you give them up as lost, because they very rarely pass your way again.
This week - Monday, I think it was - I caught a glimpse of a tasty-looking story. And I went for it. Now, here I am and it is Thursday afternoon. I'm still not done, but I've made it through the worst of the struggle, and at least I can see the end in sight. Actually, it has been a pretty decent week of writing. When it's really working, when the fish are biting and the words are flowing, I don't think there's a better feeling in the world. It doesn't last, of course. You wade through your second or third rewrite (or your tenth, if that's your way of doing things), and maybe you'll take a minute or a day to wallow in the glow of self-contentment. Then you pack it up, your latest baby, plaster on the stamps and send it off out into the big unfriendly world. And you wait for those rejections to roll in.
So, there it is. A week nearly down, another new story nearly done and a pile of historical novel research mouldering away in the desk drawer. Novels don't get written by letting them moulder, but what can I say? My problem is that I like fishing. I understand the problems posed by fish, but when you reel in a good one it truly is a heartfelt joy. The rest of the time, all you can really do is try not to fall in the river...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

John Prine

Where did John Prine come from? What planet, I mean, or what heavenly plane. For some years now, I have been preaching the Gospel according to John to any who might care to hear. And I know that the converted will eagerly clamour to back me up.
I am not exaggerating when I say that I have yet to find another writer, poet or lyricist (with the admitted exception of Dylan), another artist of any kind, in fact, with such a delicate and dexterous turn of phrase. John Prine's songs don't merely ache with humanity, they bleed the stuff, and they are a gift that has gone tragically unnoticed or ignored by a world obsessed with airhead glitterati and hollow fantasy. Maybe he is simply unlucky to have been born a man out of his time, or ahead of it, maybe he crash landed on the wrong planet, but the fact is that he has just too much substance for most people to bear.
Actually, John Prine, equal parts acerbic and self-deprecating, might be the ultimate folk poet, the true voice of the everyman. No pomp, no swaggering faux-intellectuality, no ego inflated to popping point. He leaves the fireworks for others, knowing perhaps that even if fireworks do reach impressive heights, the burn out far too quickly. Prine's songs don't burn out, they smoulder with an nearly untouchable majesty. In common with the likes of Merle Haggard and perhaps Gordon Lightfoot, he lays down words that sound and seem simple but which are devastating in their honesty. He watches the world, and he lives, and when something moves him just right he turns it into a song.
And what a song... I dare anyone to listen to 'Hello In There', 'Far From Me', or 'Mexican Home', or my favourite song of all time, the sublime 'Souvenirs', and not feel their soul shifting clear across their bodies; I dare them to wallow in 'Fish And Whistle' or 'Dear Abby' or 'That's The Way The World Goes Round' without cracking a smile that's all teeth and gums.
As a writer, I don't feel envious of John's ability to turn a phrase or to craft a simile. I merely drink them in and gasp in awe. And I reserve my envy for those incredibly fortunate people who have just discovered, or who are just about to discover, this massive wealth of genuinely astonishing music (music that, along with the collected writings of Dylan and Hemingway, comfortably stands alongside America's finest bodies of artistic work). My envy is well spent too, because I know that there are few experiences in life as transcendent as hearing for the very first time the harrowing and poignant 'Sam Stone', or the life-in-a-stolen-moment perfection of 'Angel From Montomery, or the eight-minute novel, 'Lake Marie', a genuine bone-fide masterpiece for our times, as good, truly, as anything ever ever written in any form.
If you only know John Prine by name, or if you have never heard of him at all, then do yourself the favour of a lifetime and educate yourself to the music industry's best kept secret. You won't regret it for a single minute, I promise. And if, with this paltry blog entry, I manage to open even one reader's mind to the beauty of John Prine then I will consider this day a very good one indeed.

For a quick leg up the ladder, check out the indispensable website,

Monday, May 18, 2009

These Days There Are So Many Overused Terms

These days, the word 'genius' gets bandied about like pickled eggs on a Jolly Boys' Beano. As an overused term, it may not be quite up there with that other promiscuous moniker, 'legend', but it's not far behind.
These days, it gets rolled out like a drumbeat for almost anyone who is able to convert an idea into a spendable unit of currency. Ronaldo (the less-than-Brazilian one) is a 'genius' with a football; existentialist-chef, Heston Blumenthal, is a 'genius' at charging exorbitant rates to egotists for a bit of seasoned roadkill; and Simon Cowell (yes, even Simon Cowell, who seems to think it is profound to wear a sweater with no shirt!!!) is a 'genius' at telling people they can't sing, or they can't dance or they look bloody awful, thereby turning an old Kit Kat advert into a multinational career.
Okay, I'm overdoing it, I know. Deep breaths, try for a bit of perspective.
Luckily for me, these days the answer to everything is just a few tapped keys and a mouse click away. In less time than it takes to spell A, a google search turned up this little pearl of clarity:

These days, 'Genius', according to Websters' (very convenient) online dictionary, is defined as an 'extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity'.

No mention of Eureka! Unless, of course, that famous/infamous shout is these days more accurately represented by the ringing of cash register bells. Oh well, I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised. There was a time (allegedly) when gravity made the world go 'round. Then love came along and had a go. Now it's money's turn ...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

PJ O'Connor Radio Drama Awards

Lately, I've been feeling as blue as B.B. King. I'm putting in the hours, slaving through the research for my novel and occasionally interrupting myself to bloodlet a few words of half-conceived ideas for stories, but the clouds have massed above my head and the rejections are piling up around me at a frenzied rate. My new book, In Too Deep, is coming out soon but my confidence is in the gutter just now and I can't even begin to imagine who might pay out hard-earn coin for the privilege of reading it.
And then, yesterday afternoon, a ray of light poked its welcome head through the gloom. I answered the phone to a message from RTE, informing me that, for the second year running, I had made the shortlist of the PJ O'Connor Radio Drama Award. A couple of months ago, like so many other hopefuls, I polished up the manuscript of my second ever 28-minute radio play, found a title that seemed to fit ('A Game Of Confidence'), printed it out and sent it off.
Last year, when my play, 'Deliver Us From Evil', was shortlisted, I took myself off to Dublin 4, sat through a nice ceremony and drowned my considerable nerves in too much red wine. I came away empty-handed (and light headed). This year, though, things will be different. Apparently, in an effort to tighten their belts and shoelaces, RTE, Ireland's national broadcaster, have done away with such formalities and have set aside a date, the 8th of June, on which they will simply announce the winning entries. A relief, actually. I don't think I could stand another crippling ceremonial disappointment, and I know that I can't spare the cost of a train to Dublin and an exorbitantly overpriced hotel room.
So, roll on the 8th of June. I'll be crossing everything up and down my person that is even remotely possible to cross. And I'll be tuned in to the Arts Show, desperately hoping against hope to hear my name announced, from the cramped comfort of my attic in Cork.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sour Grapes Turn My Stomach

Was there ever a time when the job of writing required nothing more than the actual devotion of months and years worth of hours spent slaving, quill or pen in hand, over a ream of paper, toiling until a story of sufficient quality had been bled forth? Put as bluntly as that, it seems a horrendous way of making a living, but the sad truth is that, these days, the final full stop merely signals that the real work is about to begin.
For writers, these days, the business is all about promotion. There are some who like to claim that it is what not who you know that counts, but there can be no denying that knowing the right people helps enormously. You can write a great book but if you don't get into the best review columns nobody is going to know your masterpiece even exists. Everywhere you look, there are literary festivals, arts grants and book awards, but even places at those podiums, alas, seem reserved for the chosen and the favoured few. Even finding a publisher is not enough anymore. Then again, perhaps it never was enough. Cultivating the right friendships was probably just as important in Hemingway's and Joyce's day, even back in Shakespeare's time, as it is today.
So, a prayer:
May God in His heaven look kindly on the introverted few who live by the desperately hopeful mantra that, in the end, the worthy stuff will somehow make it to the top. And, in the meantime, grant them the strength to endure and to keep the faith while they are forced to look on from their murky little hole in the wall as some flash-in-the-pan footballer's inflatable popette of a wife sells her ghost-written ought-o-biography to a clamouring flock of bidders and as the latest friend of a friend of Daddy's accountant's friend takes his or her turn in the lavish limelight to casually collect their hard-earned cheque for however many thousand and to mutter a few self-serving thank you's to all those glorious princes and princesses of the highest echelons for naming their most recent tome as best this or that of the year.
It's all about as depressing as January rain, but it's reality, and the only way to carry on is to keep your head down and simply carry on. When the dreams wither, hurry to replace them, keep on writing your thousand words a day and keep reaching for the shining stars in the sky. Oh, and vent before the pressure becomes too much ...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bucket Lists

I quite like the idea of a Bucket List. It's a simple enough concept: you take a sheet of paper and jot down all the things you want to do before the old grim reaper comes a-knocking, and then you try to strike off as many of those goals as you can in the time you have left. I suppose it offers a kind of focus if you happen, as I do, to suffer from wandering-aimlessly-through-life syndrome.
As I am thirty-four years old and have ambitions to live to at least my late nineties, my Bucket List will probably run to several hundred pages. And it would be full of the usual things too: visit the South Seas, crack time travel, criss-cross America in an open top Cadillac, write the book that I know I should write but somehow can't, get to outer space, shake hands with Bob Dylan, discover the perfect pickle, master the penny-whistle, maybe even learn how to juggle. On my deathbed, I'd like to be able to say my goodbyes in twenty-seven languages.
The problem is actually writing down such hopes and dreams. They glitter in my mind but on paper they seem staid. And writing them down seems to carve them in stone. What am I really saying, and what are these longings saying about me? Supposing I can't achieve all the goals, supposing penny-whistles drop out of circulation or I develop some sort of inner ear problem that effects my balance in a way that makes juggling out of the question. Suppose I do meet Bob Dylan and he simply refuses to shake hands. Will that mean that my life has been one great failure? No, writing a Bucket List seems like too much of a commitment, I think. Besides, I'm thirty-four now but who knows what I will want at forty-four, or ninety-four? Maybe at ninety-four the extent of my dreams will stretch to a comfortable rocking chair and a bladder that works only when it should. Our goals change all the time. The achievement, I think, is in accepting what we have and who we are ...

Friday, May 8, 2009

Magic In The Night

On Wednesday night, in Dublin's O2 Arena, Bob Dylan finished the latest leg of his 'neverending' tour with a performance ridiculous in its sublimity. Too lavish a buttering of praise? Well, not to these eyes and ears. Not to this heart.
I have learned over the years that the things you see from ten feet away really make all the difference. You catch it all from here, the nuances in phrasing, the lowdown smirks, the wandering one-legged dance steps. Everything. Others understand this too, others who bother to get in line six hours before the kick off just so that they can snag the best position, right on the rail, front and centre (or preferably, a few feet to the right of centre). It is like perching on the edge of a tornado, static intensity comes at you in waves, and all you can do is hold on for dear life.
Ten feet away on Wednesday night, and there was Bob, cringing and smirking his way through a stomping set, decked out in dapper black and yellow and looking like some outlaw stray from a flea bitten cowboy flick. Doing it his way. And the converted lapped it up.
He hit the ground at a fast canter, a Wicked Messenger indeed, and sustained the intensity through eighteen songs and two and a quarter hours, all the way through to the spun-gold
harmonica solo to close out a savagely mutated Blowin' In The Wind that was inspired in its reinvention. All the way through, his singing was right there, on the money, and he toyed with the phrasing as if every utterance was a game of Blind Man's Bluff. Highlights? How about a gentle guitar-performed Girl From The North Country, or a brooding Man In The Long Black Coat? How about a word-perfect and meticulously enunciated Desolation Row, Bob's facial expressions pantomiming every line, or a banjo-laden Blind Willie McTell, or the nastiest, angriest Ballad Of A Thin Man that you are ever likely to hear? And if that is not enough, how about a song from the new album, the Midnight Special-esque 'If You Ever Go To Houston', perfromed for the second night in a row and for the second time ever?
The hand grenade for me, though, was a mammoth rendition of that often-creaking old warhorse, Highway 61 Revisited. Based around a stomping blues riff that churned the band to a frenzy, Bob pushed for more and more and always always more, until finally you could feel the music in your bones, churning your marrow to mud. On and on it came, until Bob was no longer just a tornado now but a black hole. He had cast his spell, struck up a wild vortex, and was sucking in everything in sight and beyond. And then, just as the song neared its crescendo, a bar or two from the end, he stepped away from his keyboard, turned his back on the dumbstruck band and raised his chin in a high profile pose. The moment froze solid, for me and perhaps for everyone, and I believe in magic now.
So much happened that night, so much to savour, but my overwhelming and enduring memory will be the way he held that pose, while the band stormed along behind, proud face raised, the famous Oscar glinting before him from the stinging footlight sheen. The noise closed in from everywhere, the band a runaway train now, the audience applause tumultuous, and then, with comical absurdity, Bob reaches up and pats the back of his hair.
If Dylan still throws down gauntlets these days, then this could have been just such a moment. Let them all come, he might have been saying. And let them even dare to try rocking half as hard as that. Tonight, Highway 61 Revisited was nuclear blues. Everything was tight, everything impossibly right. It doesn't get any better than that. And throughout the entire show, not a word was wasted, not a single word even uttered, in fact. No pandering here, no 'Hello Dublin', no between song thank yous, not even a band introduction. If there was any concession to, or even acknowledgement of, the audience, then it was to be found in that one peculiar moment of posing, and then, at the very end, a quick line-up with the band, before they traipsed off to go their separate ways, another leg of the tour ended, another job done, and done well. Tonight, the songs were left to do the talking, and really, isn't that just as it should be?

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Hag's Bed Is More Comfortable Than You Might Think ...

Bank Holiday Monday here in Cork, weather overcast but warm, getting some writing done, one step forward two steps back. I never liked Bank Holidays...
Yesterday, feeling the need to be out somewhere doing or seeing something of value, I gave myself a history lesson, took myself off to the beautiful seclusion of Glanworth, one of north Cork's true hidden treasures. Take a left at Fermoy, follow the twists and turns for a few miles and there it is, home to the oldest public bridge in Ireland (and possibly in Europe), a place too picturesque even for postcards.
Every step you take in a place like Glanworth counts for something, whether you know it or not. Here you stand in one of the three ancient capitals of Munster, and the way to properly appreciate a town like this is to take it at a walk, to breathe and to feel and to stand in the very spots where the stories had played themselves out. Here was where Tommy Barry led an ambush on the Black and Tans back in the day, 1919. Two men down, identity parades, and small miracles. Or this bridge, standing since the mid-15th century, a magnificent structure spanning thirteen arches long and strong over the babbling River Funcheon: blown by "the boys" back in Civil War times, blown up, priest and all.
Of greatest interest to me, though, was The Hag's Bed, the Labbacallee Megalith, a 5000 year old wedge tomb of incredible size and proportion situated a mile or so out of town. Ancient almost beyond compare, older than the pyramids at Giza, as old as Stonehenge.
In Glanworth, if you are of a particular mind, you can feel the history everywhere on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
It was a pretty good day, actually,

Dylan's Together Through Life playing incessantly in the backround